Before Jeri Chua entered the world of long-distance running, she was a triathlete and Kona, Hawaii IRONMAN World Championship finisher. As Kona was the ultimate goal race for IRONMAN, Jeri soon learned that the UTMB was something similar for trail ultrarunning. And, it did not take her long to get there.
A year into her ultra career, Jeri found herself on Mont Blanc, where she experienced many firsts for the newbie ultra-woman. Now laughing as she recalled the memory: “I had never seen mountains that big. Ever.” It was a race full of lessons.
“It was an amazing experience and I learned so much that race,” she said. “It was great and very, very challenging for me and I am glad I got around all in one piece.”
The last 15 to 20 kilometers were nice, she added, it was the first 140k before that which were definitely a learning curve.
In over her head, still cold while wearing everything she was required to carry, and with feet so sore she wasn’t sure she could keep going.
“The climbing, it just goes on forever,” she said. “I remember bursting into tears thinking, I can’t do this anymore!”
But then, she discovered Coke. Its caffeine and sugar boost pushed her the last 20k, and she breezed into the finish line.
Jeri finished the UTMB, taking one step at a time, following the proverb, “Dripping water can hollow out stone.”
She learned a lot about herself and the sport of ultrarunning, but there was still so much more to master and many miles to find out.
Jeri grew up in Singapore with three younger sisters. She moved around a lot and has been living back in Singapore for the last two years. However, with her job, Jeri is constantly on the move.
As a student in secondary school, she was influenced by several physical-education (PE) teachers and decided to follow that same path. She went to PE school in Singapore, then did her masters in the U.K. for exercise and nutrition exercise. She worked in the field for a “very, very short time,” introducing little kids to team sports.
It was hilarious, she said, but she realized that teaching was not her calling.
“When I finished my degree, the trained teachers went and taught in schools and I remember going into the classroom and they handed me this giant Chinese calculator and I had no idea what to do with it!”
During that time, Jeri was in the midst of hard training as a triathlete and she wanted to gear her schooling toward working with athletes, figuring out what made them tick and perform better.
She left the education field and stumbled upon a job at an electronics company in the U.K. where she stayed for the next 12 years, enjoying the ability to boss people around, she said.
She then spent years as a fashion writer for Esquire magazine with her sister Janie Cai, reporting on stylish runway models and designers.
Swapping heels for Hokas and the runway for the trail, Jeri dove headfirst into the ultrarunning world and is now running her own business as a distributor of ultrarunning products. She started two years ago, just distributing Tailwind to Southeast Asia. Then in March, she opened an online store, which has been booming with the rise in ultrarunners in her town. Her store, Red Dot Running Company, aims at building the local running community and bridging the gaps between runners throughout Asia.
So, loaded with all of the niche products desired by ultrarunners, she heads out to ultra and trail races with nutrition products, Orange Mud vests, and more.
Over the years, ultrarunning in Singapore has grown into a hardcore group of athletes, Jeri said. It is a group that thrives on the philosophy of running one’s best, rather than how fast your time is.
“Everyone is willing to give it their best. Many of my friends are doing their first 100 miler on the roads this weekend, which I am in awe of. I would never consider doing my first 100 miler on the road!”
Everyone knows everyone or knows of everyone and there is usually not an empty spot along local race courses, since the community comes out to cheer when a race is happening.
Jeri was introduced to ultrarunning after a short hiatus from endurance sports. She had started competing in triathlons while in university and not long after, she raced in Kona. As someone who did not play sports until she was studying as a PE teacher, Jeri eventually got the hang of the tri-sport combo.
“It’s a toss-up between the swim and the bike,” she said, about the sport that’s the hardest for her. “I swim like a rock, literally, I swim like a rock underwater. Plus, I am very accident prone and my spatial awareness is not the best, so racing on the bike with the drop handlebars was hilarious to watch. The first time I wobbled into a ditch!”
She made it one piece, and finished the qualifying race to get to Kona–during which she also ran her first marathon, by the way–and then completed Kona all in 1998.
Her interest in the sport dwindled as she found herself dreading the long swims and bike rides in the cold U.K. weather, where she was living at the time. For the next five years, she explored the U.K., went kitesurfing, and then, to give herself a little kick in the butt, she joined the running club to get back in shape.
“When I first learned about ultras, I thought they were impossible. I thought there was no way you could run that far… but then, that was the beginning of it. That group of hardcore runners was great and gave me a great introduction.”
The first ultra was the Classic Quarter in Cornwall, England, a 45-mile run along the beautiful southwest coast of the country.
“It was technical terrain, a lot of ups and downs. Those were the most awesome days ever, and the most painful days ever!”
As an outdoor lover and as someone who is quite comfortable being alone for hours without seeing or talking to others, Jeri was hooked. On that first starting line, she looked up, staring at the trail ahead of her and thought, I don’t think I can do this.
That thought has streamed through her mind at every starting line since. “The more challenging the race is why I sign up,” she said. “It is that thought, I don’t think I can do this, that is the main challenge and the appeal, really.”
For some, it takes about three days to recover and get back to running after a race. It took Jeri three days to finally stop ascending and descending stairs on her hands and knees.
When she moved back to Singapore in 2010, she heard her running group talking about UTMB.
Okay, I have no idea what this is but let’s give it a try, Jeri remembered thinking. At the time, she had three out of seven needed points to qualify for UTMB. So, she signed up for her first 100 miler then a 100k within three months of each other to reach the points and time cutoff for earning them so that she could enter UTMB’s lottery.
Jeri trained and raced mainly on her own, thus figuring it out independently.
“I didn’t know too much about ultras. I thought rather unwisely that all I needed to do was to double my marathon training program from one that I pinched from my IRONMAN training program to be ready for the 100k, and I am glad I didn’t do that for the 100 miler. I had way too much mileage in that first year. I don’t know how my legs kept it up.” Still, she made it to UTMB.
In Singapore, Jeri runs in 95% humidity and temperatures reaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The highest natural elevation is a couple hundred feet above sea level and the trails are just now being reopened to the public.
For mountain training she runs and up down the tallest summit in the area and she loops around and charts funny-shaped courses to rack up the mileage.
“The most common elevation training and the most bang for your buck is to go straight up and down buildings. We have many high-rise buildings, so we do stair repeats.”
If you look hard enough, you can get buildings with 40 to 50 flights, she said.
Her training has prepared her to run many long-distance races, including the Great North Walk 100 Mile, Atacama Crossing, The North Face Endurance Challenge 100k in Sydney and Singapore, and the annual One Marina Boulevard (OMB) Challenge 10, a 10k run followed by a climb up a 31-story building in Singapore!
Like all ultrarunners say, it is the community of amazing people that brings the newbies in. In Singapore, the community has grown in size as well as the number of ultras just in her region.
Though many friends are runners who race ultras, Jeri continues to train by herself, due to a crazy work schedule. Yet, when she does race with friends, then the fun begins.
Jethro De Decker, a friend of Jeri’s who trains and races with her when the two can, says the more she runs, the more talkative she becomes, and when she becomes quiet is when you need to put some food in!
“She’s right when she says she mainly does everything alone. Whether it’s racing, training, or working on building Red Dot Running Company and the running community in Singapore, she quietly gets on with it on her own. She certainly appreciates the great feedback she gets, or help on a race, but would seldom ask for it!”
The two have paced each other at races, and just completed a fastpacking trip across the famous Haute Route in the European Alps.
“Both of us enjoy travelling light and fast, with just the essential gear, although we probably took more cheese than we needed! Sharing the experience with someone that is as at home in the mountains as I am, is an adventure I will never forget,” he said.
At home, her coach Andy DuBois helps her make training as efficient and fast as possible since she is on a plane to another store or race every three to four days. She does not have high mileage, and instead heads out for 30- to 40-minute runs wherever she can find the time and the trail during the day.
“I don’t even have time to stretch,” she said, hoping her coach doesn’t read this. “If I have a 30-minute window, I would rather go run than stretch.”
Even as a fashion writer, traveling was a big part of her life and she now looks at it as a way to find and explore new trails.
When it comes time for races, she plans out the one or two she would like to do that year, then signs up for others as they come along. As this is published, Jeri will have just finished the Trans Malaysia, where she ran a 444k single-stage race from one coast of the country to another on a team of 12 people.
In the last team race she did, she ran with Janet Ng and friends in the Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker. “They said they had an extra spot. I had never considered something like that because it is a team race and I prefer to run alone. And that team is fast!”
Spontaneity is a quality of Jeri’s that her younger sister Janie Cai always finds amusing, whether it concerns running or throwing a fashionable Baywatch party.
“She’s driven and focused and works very hard to achieve the goals she’s set out for herself and these are usually pretty ambitious goals, the kind that most people would be hesitant to even consider,” Cai said. “That said, she knows how to have a good time and we tend to have a lot of laughs whenever we hang out. She’s got a wicked sense of humor.”
According to Cai, Jeri can work hard, then definitely knows how to play hard. From sister to sister, Jeri is the firstborn, independent leader who was always the top sibling when it came to sports and games as children.
Jeri and Cai were the dynamic duo when working together at the magazine.
“It was amazing to work with her. She is a fantastic person to work with because she is so detail-oriented and anticipates just what I need for the shows. She came as our primary runway photographer, but helped with so much more when we had last-minute interviews and arrangements (you never know what can happen during fashion week in Paris and Milan, Italy),” she explained. “We push each other creatively and managed to accomplish a lot in a short time, and we also have great synergy when it comes to collaborating on a shoot.”
Plus, Cai added, being the lightweight ultrarunner, all unfinished champagne went into Janie’s cup. However, untouched food went onto Jeri’s plate.
“It started in Milan when we were having dinner with one of the artistic directors and I guess I must have been pecking at my food because he looked over at my plate and exclaimed, ‘You eat like a small bird!’ This led to Jeri jokingly calling me ‘small bird’ for the rest of the trip, which made her ‘fat bird’ by default. Now we all call her that, or ‘FB’ for short!” Fatbirdgoesultra is the title of Jeri’s running blog where you can find race recaps, shoe and gear reviews, and more.
Cai may not truly understand Jeri’s desire for wanting to start and finish an ultra, but understands what an ultra takes, and why Jeri is the right type of person to accomplish it.
Ultras, especially 100-mile-and-beyond races, are said to represent one’s life journey. Within those miles, there the ups and downs, people there to cheer you on, and a determination to overcome the most difficult of challenges. Jeri sees the finish line of these races as mental training and motivation more so than physical.
When the going gets tough, the pain becomes almost unbearable, muscles are fatigued beyond comeback, and the thought of moving one more step becomes revolting to even think about–that is when Jeri overcomes.
“If it is really bad and I am close to tears and thinking: Why am I doing this? I do not need to be doing this. I have nothing to prove. I think back to my motivation for starting because you forget why you even started in the first place.”
When these thoughts pounced on her during the Tor des Géants (TdG) in Italy, it was another challenge she was not sure she would be able to overcome.
A friends of hers told her about the new adventure, saying the race around Mont Blanc was nothing compared to the Italian course.
“What do you mean ‘nothing!’ she exclaimed to him. “That was the most painful race I had ever done.”
“He told me about the Tor de Géants and I thought, Wow, never something I would even consider. A very short while later I found myself registering [for its lottery].”
Again, she headed into the race not knowing what she had gotten herself into and not nearly as mentally prepared as most people, she said.
“You know how most people plan in advance for months before a race,” she asked me rhetorically. “Well, I am terrible at that. When it comes to planning and organizing for my job, I’m good, but when it comes to my own racing I am very last minute.”
For this race, she crammed her stuff into a bag, only learning that the race has 24,000 meters of climbing packed into its 330 kilometers when she got there.
TdG takes place under the Italian ‘giants’ in Aosta Valley, which refers to the four big mountains surrounding the valley, Monte Rosa, Mont Blanc, Gran Paradiso, and the Matterhorn. There were seven life bases, or trumped-up aid stations, which offered up prosciutto, salami, sparkling water, beer, wine, and cheese in terms of aid-station nutrition. Instead of sleeping at these stops, where it becomes noisy and crowded, she continued as long as she could go until reaching small refuges where runners could rest only up to two hours before getting kicked out.
She was surprised near the beginning of the race, when a friend decided to follow the race as her only crew.
The first 50k was great. She did not need too much sleep to work off of, and her friend was there to wash clothes and find her ice cream. She stayed fueled, running on gels and good snacks.
After that mark, all good intentions were done and she was in the “survival, just-get-it-done phase.”
When those dangerous thoughts were attacking, it took all Jeri had to fight them off. A trick she pulls out from her bag is Post-It Notes which list why she signed up for this race. She reads each one, soaking up that same motivation she had when clicking ‘yes’ on the race’s sign-up form.
“You signed up for this. No one forced you to do this,” she usually tells herself. “You signed up for the challenge and this is where the challenge starts. That’s a good kick up the ass for me. A good reminder.”
Another trick, an unplanned, odd trick, was reaching a high pass at sunrise. “It was nice to get that energy from the sunlight,” she said. “The extra light, the beauty, the colors; it makes it all worth it.”
The final climb was so technical that you needed to pull on ropes to make it over. Again, like UTMB, a little bit of a caffeinated Coke had her bouncing off the mountain walls toward the end.
Unless there is unfinished business, or it was so truly amazing that she must return, you will not find Jeri coming back to the same race too often. Her favorite race is the one she is currently training for and then currently running, because it is another new adventure.
“There is so much to explore and that is why doing these ultras is so amazing. They take you to places typical tourists won’t go. And the experience, even when fatigued, near starvation, and in pain is one of the most amazing and one of the worst in your life.”
One day she hopes to experience the amazing adventure and awful pain that comes with the Leadville Trail 100 Mile, Western States 100, Hardrock 100, and Coast to Kosci Ultramarathon.
“Every beautiful race is a bucket race,” she said and starting to chuckle added in, “I may regret saying this out loud, but Barkley Marathons… I am so bad at navigation, I would be the human sacrifice and get lost for days!”
When she hears something crazy, sees the peaks of the TdG, finishes a race dressed as a fish, or makes her way through a storm, something inside stirs. It is that feeling deep down in the pit of your stomach, warning you that this is going to be another challenge that you may or may not overcome. At the same time, the desire to see the beauty of the sun, the mountains, or the liberating sight of the finish line overcomes all else.
Jeri walks up to a starting line, ready to take the entire package no matter where she is.
“Every race is my favorite.”
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
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